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Too Loud? It’s Complicated

By Robert Scovill / April 8, 2015

 Oh boy, “how loud is too loud” is one sticky wicket. What seems like such a simple concept is actually quite complex in nature.

With regard to government agencies regulating concert sound pressure levels; If you think the government won’t take the time to legislate it, consider that today’s Congress and Senate are currently working on legislation mandating the variance in audio when moving from program material to commercials on television. At the heart of the debate is whether the volume at which the commercial is created and presented is a function of creativity or not. i.e. Is volume a form of free speech? Keep that little ditty in mind as you read through the rest of this.

 

With the events of the past year bringing safety concerns to the foreground, it is increasingly likely that regulatory agencies such as OSHA are going to get involved. Many of the OSHA standards on SPL are built with the manufacturing industry in mind and meant to protect workers from, say, the onslaught of a nail stamping machine during an 8 hour work day, every day over the course of an average workers life span at the company. How would they then measure this for the average concert-goer? SPLs vary – predictably – as distance increases from the source. What location would represent the legislated measurement in order to ensure the hearing safety of 18,000 people as opposed to 20 exposed workers in fixed positions?

 

The rigid existing OSHA regulations would seem out of place in the concert sound world where noise levels are varying and timed averages can also vary wildly from show to show. In fact, the more you dig in, the more complex the entire concept gets, especially when you attempt to add some context to the question – not something legislators are very adept at doing. For example, when you simply ask the question “what is too loud” are you asking from a subjective point of view or from a legislated or even physiological/medical point of view? You have to know this, because there can, and will likely be two or three completely different answers for the same situation depending on who you ask.

 

The simplest example is “the big rock show”. Ask any number of fans in the audience if it is too loud and you are likely to get an equal number of responses. Ask the county officer standing next to you staring down at his county provided SPL meter and you’ll generally get a pretty firm and specific response.

 

Want another even more complex example? Ask both a younger and an older parishioner after both have sat through the same church service and you’ll likely get answers at the opposite end of the spectrum. This is because “volume”, especially in the context of music, evokes an emotional response from the listener; however it likely evokes a cold and unwavering response from the officer representing the legislators who may have contrived the SPL measurement as a restrictive law. Now if that’s not enough, throw in the fact that SPL is a logarithmic measurement that can also offer weighted values and you have all kinds of challenges, because most everyone short of engineers who understand it, think of SPL as a linear measurement. They don’t see adjusting from 101db to 98db all that big of a deal. As an engineer, how many times have you heard this; “can you turn it down 2-3db … just a couple please”? Uh … okay.

 

From the listener or mixer’s perspective, volume is a funny thing. I’m of the opinion that there is an optimal volume for every genre of music, but at the end of the day that’s my opinion and in every situation that “correct” volume is subjective at best. The most glaring example of this kind of challenge is the contemporary church.

 

Consider the challenge for today’s church environment in comparison to the typical concert environment. For starters, in the concert environment, everybody is there to see the artist. They all paid money to attend, they’re familiar with the music and generally speaking all are aligned in their expectation of what is about to transpire. Conversely in the church environment, think about the diversity of musical tastes that might be seated in the average church congregation; incredibly diverse. Add to that the seemingly infinite style and arrangement possibilities for today’s Christian music, and you can see how the possibility for conflicting opinions about the presentation can easily exist.

 

In fact, in the church many times what rears it’s head as a volume issue is actually something else. For example, someone complaining that it is “too loud” might simply be a dissatisfied with the tonality or spectral balance of the mix or PA system, or I’ve even been witness to it being someone not buying into a style of music, say with distorted guitar, that is being presented. This is not something that can be measured and certainly not quantified with an SPL meter, although I have read articles in recent years presented by some renowned folks who submit otherwise.

 

If you need a more extreme and specific example of this kind of situation, consider this one; a few years back there was a large outdoor festival held in San Francisco called “The Tibetan Freedom Festival”. It deployed a very large festival-style PA system, lots of rock acts on the bill, etc. County-regulated SPL measurement on site. Within minutes of firing up the PA system, an incredible amount of “volume complaints” were lodged to the authorities by the folks adjacent to the grounds etc. However; upon further investigation by the authorities, it was revealed that the vast majority of people complaining did so because they were not politically aligned with the event. The complaints had nothing to do with SPL. It was the content and more specifically the underlying theme of the event that drove the complaints. So in this instance no volume or legislated SPL would have been acceptable to the surrounding patrons other than “off”.

 

As for the measurement devices, current models generally offer no discernment capabilities of any kind. They just capture a cold hard number that reflects the SPL limit that has been put in place and offers no situational interpretation. For example, you don’t have to be a scientist to figure out, that you could take a simple PA system and tune it say, in an extremely midrange-forward manner, and make every person in the listening zone leave the venue with their ears ringing. However, the result could still be within the legislated SPL limit, especially if the measurement is flat-weighted. Additionally, the SPL measurement has no meaningful way, other than relying on the human operating it, to interpret where the excessive volume is emanating from. i.e., Is it from the speaker system – or from the girl screaming her head off standing right next to the measurement mic? One thing is for sure, the measurement device can’t discern the two and there is no way to subtract the additive effect of the audience member clapping and yelling from the legislated part of the measurement.

 

I’ve been lobbying the FFT manufacturers for some time now to try and develop an SPL measurement that offers a form of coherence in its measurement capabilities based on the time window deployed in conjunction with a locator function. This would allow the measurement to clearly understand where the measurable audio is coming from in the venue. Audio that is not within the time window of the PA system – you know, the thing that is being legislated – would be able to be excluded from the measurement. This would be especially important for LEQ style measurements where periods of measurement are nothing more than the audience cheering and applauding. Oft times the level of the crowd responding can exceed the stated limit and would negatively impact your average, for which the artist would be penalized in the form of CASH penalties. Many of these style devices now offer a kill switch for the mic that is manually engaged between songs, but it’s extremely crude in nature and does not really address the problem at hand in its entirety.

 

Frankly, I’m not at all looking forward to the day that OSHA and the courts get involved in our world of concert sound, but I’m of the opinion that it’s likely to happen at some point. Once it does, you’re sure to see insurance companies lining up to sell liability insurance to EVERYONE and ANYONE involved in concert audio because the lawsuits are sure to follow. The irony of it all in my opinion is, that you’re probably more likely to get hearing damage from the latest and greatest rapper-branded headphones than you would be from 90 minutes of exposure to today’s concerts. I’ll tell ya one thing, if the movie trailers that we are bombarded with at movie theaters before today’s feature films are allowed to continue to operate at the volume at which they’re operating, the concert world should be safe for some time to come.

 

WOW! Scovill out —

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About the author

Robert Scovill

Robert is a 30 year veteran of live sound and 6 time TEC / 2 time Parnelli Award winner for Sound Reinforcement Engineer of the Year. He serves as Senior Market Specialist for live sound products for Avid and regularly works as Concert Sound Mixer and Live Recordist for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

2 comments
miki - July 1, 2015

I agree with you here 100%. (especially about the tonality and it’s effect on the perceived volume of a PA which as a live engineer is something I have lived by for years ). Wouldn’t it be easiest just to have a disclaimer on the ticket stating that ” by the purchase of said ticket you understand that you may be exposed to excessive volume and are purchasing at your own risk” or something to that matter. And the venues can place signs at the entrances warning of the possible high volume levels just like they post signs about cancer causing circumstances on the premises. Bureaucracy is getting out of hand and there seems to be the ridiculous need to REGULATE EVERYTHING!! I mean come on, people who go to concerts (rock concerts, etc.) know what to expect, and most like LOUD music, and if they don’t they buy the CD. The difference here between OSHA regulating workplace volume, etc. is that people voluntarily go to concerts, nobody is forced to. And the concert goers are not there 8 hours a day 5 days a week. Of course it is a different story for the production crews, and one would hope most act responsibly and self-protect themselves with earplugs or whatever. And who exactly is responsible for the volume level? Is it the promoter of the event, the venue owner (who may have a venue never designed for concerts and so may exacerbate the effort to control audio) the sound company who owns the gear, the band(s), or the poor sound engineer who is trying to provide the audience with the best sonic experience they can while having to deal with onstage volume, room acoustics, ambient audience noise etc.? Regardless of who is held liable you can bet the sound engineer will be held responsible and therefore his job will essentially be on the line every time he goes to work! Is’t just another damn thing to cause ticket prices to rise to stupidly high prices that nobody can afford. Sadly, in mu opinion, this issue is just another nail in the coffin of the music industry. An industry, already at the mercy of greedy music publishers, music sharing sites, big corporate concert promoters, insurance companies. And, as the ability to create music and make a living doing it will go from difficult and challenging to nearly impossible, quashing the desire of many to pursue music seriously, it will also become a lost art form.

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    Bill Evans - November 6, 2015

    Great stuff here. You should expand it into a blog. We will run it and promote it.

    Reply
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